What is unique about young voters?

Developmental changes = opportunity

All adolescents undergo fundamental biological, cognitive, and social changes that allow them to begin thinking hypothetically and abstractly about themselves and the world around them. Also, during this period, optimism rules over pessimism. As seen through student-led demonstrations by youth from Parkland, Florida to Oakland, California, civic engagement is an opportune venue to flex newfound identities and ideals at this ripe age of possibilities. Combining hope with the power to address complex issues of today can have lasting effects on young people and society as a whole.

Youth recognize their power to generate change.

A national poll by CIRCLE highlights the fact that the youngest members of the electorate are energized to create social change. 83% say they believe young people have the power to change the country, 60% feel like they’re part of a movement that will vote to express its views, and 79% of young people say the COVID-19 pandemic has helped them realize that politics impact their everyday lives.

These beliefs are spurring social action among teens and young adults: 

  • 50% more youth are trying to convince their peers to vote in 2020 compared to 2018, and more 25% -- more than double the 11% in 2018 -- have helped register voters. 
  • In 2018, 16% of youth aged 18-24 had recently participated in a march or demonstration. In 2020 year, 27% of youth in that age group have marched or protested, and this rate is consistent across racial and ethnic groups. 

The highest priority issues for young voters are racism, climate change, and healthcare access and affordability. 

The youngest members of the electorate are still less likely to vote than older folks. 

Many pediatricians and adolescent specialists now care for patients ages 18 to 24 — the very age group in the US with the lowest voter turnout.

Young voters face unique barriers to voting. Individual apathy is commonly cited as the primary reason young people do not vote, but this is rarely the case. Instead, barriers to voter turnout among the teens and young adults include an interconnected web of structural and community factors contribute to overall lower rates of voting among the youngest members of the electorate.

Recent studies have shown:

  • Compared to other age groups, young voters are the least likely to be registered to vote.
  • Irrespective of voter registration status, many young voters experience difficulties arranging their work or school schedule, finding transportation to the polls, or understanding where to vote. 
  • In a poll of 18-21 year olds by CIRCLE leading up to the 2020 Presidential Election, 
    • One-third (34%) said they did not know if their state has online voter registration. 
    • Just 25% have voted by mail before, and more than a quarter said they wouldn’t know where to get information about mail-in voting

      Image borrowed from CIRCLE with permission

There are disparities in which young voters access the healthy benefits of voting.

Fore example, research reveals disparate voting rates among certain groups, like youth who are low-income, people of color, or homeless. Young people with no college experience are less likely to be contacted by campaigns and parties and less likely to have information on casting an absentee ballot or to know where to get it, which both reflects and potentially perpetuates inequalities in political participation.

For decades, young people have voted at lower rates than those aged 30+, there are often negative media narratives that suggest youth are apathetic. Many young people get the message that they’re being dismissed. What’s worse, these narratives very rarely focus on the real systemic barriers young people can face. Every community has a variety of assets and constraints to creating a culture where engagement is encouraged and facilitated. Because of the way engagement is often set up or administered, those challenges can be especially acute for youth from low-income households and from communities of color. For example, school clubs, youth organizations, and other extracurricular activities can be important “incubators” of civic behaviors, but depending on their race and ethnicity, or socioeconomic status, young people may have very inequitable access to those opportunities.

While electoral reforms and campaign mobilization strategies that reach youth when they near or reach voting age are important, in order to achieve a more representative electorate and sustained increases in youth participation efforts to prepare young people for electoral and civic engagement must start much earlier. Young people’s ability and desire to participate are shaped by many factors throughout their childhood and adolescence, and many youth become political actors long before they turn 18. 

The VOICE Project team is actively working on this page! Have a suggestion for resources we should add? Please reach out to us at [email protected]. We would love to hear from you!